Before talking about how much I enjoyed First Blood, I want to talk a little bit about my history with the character of Rambo. As a kid growing up in the 80s, you could not escape this huge idea of the character. I don’t remember when I saw the movies, but I knew there was this bandana-wearing dude running around shirtless shooting people and wielding a big knife. He. Was. Awesome.
Part of the reason I knew about the character, aside from just living in the world at that time, because they heavily marketed this guy for kids, which is funny when you think about the fact that the violent franchise is built around a Vietnam vet with PTSD. There was a 65 episode cartoon called Rambo: The Force Of Freedom. That series also spawned a line of action figures which I will feature in next week’s Toy Commercial Tuesday (plug!). I definitely had one of the shirtless, black pants action figures, but think I lost it or someone swiped it. I should have gone on a Rambo-like rampage until I got it back, but that’s tough to do when your 7 or whatever.
I mention all of that because the version of Rambo that lived in my head for so long doesn’t really match up to the character seen in the first film. When I finally got around to watching First Blood for the first time in high school, I was confused and lost interest. “Why’s Rambo just walking around like a guy? Why isn’t he blowing anything up? Eh, what’s on the internet.” A week or so back I got a hankering to watch the movie again, but it wasn’t on Netflix Instant so I scoped it out on Amazon and discovered they were having a big sale on the box set, so I got myself a little birthday present.
While I’m not sure how great the BR conversion is (some of the blacks looked pretty spotty), this movie really is beautiful. Director Ted Kotcheff really took advantage of the Washington setting and made sure to grab wide sweeping shots of the landscape. I don’t know if it was his intent, but I got the feeling that part of the emotional heart of this story was to juxtapose the beauty of the location with the ugliness of assumption and violence that it winds up being the backdrop for.
And really, this is an emotional movie on many levels. You’ve obviously got the emotional states and responses by the main characters the fuel the thing: Brian Dennehy’s assumptions about the kind of person Rambo is leads to a lot of the trouble, while the combined crap of Rambo’s life lead him to head back into town instead of just leaving like he easily could have. More than that, though, you really feel what Rambo went through (as much as anyone who hasn’t gone through a war can do so). I’ve seen plenty of movies revolving around the Vietnam War and every time I do, I’m reminded of how terrible people were to the returning soldiers. These are guys who either by their own choice or thanks to the draft were put into a system that’s designed to turn you into a killer (or at the very least, a person with the skills to kill), sent to a faraway place with little to no support, immersed in death and killing and then expected to come back home and integrate into society? That’s the plight of every soldier, but it was rougher for the Vietnam vets because, unlike their WWII brethren, they didn’t get parades or cheers, but instead angry protesters and jeers. I’m amazed that any of those guys were able to come back and be productive — or at the very least non-destructive — members of society.
So there’s a lot of that in this film; a lot of heart and a lot of anger. But the action scenes are also really solid. You’ve got everything from the car/motorcycle chase into the woods and the helicopter coming after Rambo to Rambo’s town-centric rampage. This dude’s not messing around and has certainly been pushed too far.
One of the interesting aspects of this film is that it’s very gray when it comes to morality. You want to root for Rambo because he’s been through so much, but does he really need to take his war into town where civilians can be hurt? No, not really. And, at the heart of things, Dennehy’s character really does have the town’s best interested at heart even if this all started because he couldn’t get past a guy’s long hair and general scruffiness. If memory serves, the three other Rambo films don’t have much of this in that Rambo’s sent into a place where his mission is to kill the bad guys — and they’re often really, really bad guys as is the case in 2008’s Rambo — but in this original film, he’s up against a bunch of townspeople who are just trying to keep their home safe. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that even if their motivations are based on misinformation.
It’s not often that I come away from an action movie both pumped up from the action scenes and thinking about something. I like when that happens, just not all the time. Too much thinking about these things tends to lead to feeling bad about the usually catastrophic level of death and violence featured in these movies.